Reflection 241: Truth and … Etc.

March 13, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

What do these men all have in common?

  • Slobodan Milosevic
  • Muammar Gaddafi
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Saddam Hussein
  • Mao Zedong
  • Kim Jung Il
  • Augusto Pinochet
  • Pol Pot

Yes, all tyrannical personalities. And all dead.  In the annals of life on Earth, each of us—including those men I have listed—stands as a distinct human personality unlike any other. Our childhood rearing is unique, our education is unique, our job histories, our aspirations, accomplishments, memories, feelings, values, sex lives—all unique. Because our loops of engagement are singular in each case.

What we share is our individuality. Some have been applauded in their time, others feared, condemned, or despised. Many have died violent deaths or been judged harshly by those they abused. But my point here is that none of them is inherently good or evil. Each is the product of the life that he lived, the outcome of a unique loop of engagement that made him turn out as he did. If any other genetically different person had experienced such a life, he would likely have turned out much the same.

Goodness or badness is a judgment by others, not an inherent attribute or personality trait. In putting such people to death for whatever reason, we are killing them for being what their life experiences have made them—as our own unique experiences have made us.

Taking the life of anyone for being who they are at a time of weakness is a form of absolute tyranny in itself, often stemming from personal animosity or hatred toward someone whose actions are shaped by his or her lifelong experience in particular places with particular people in particular eras. Taking violent action against people we don’t agree with is a crude form of asserting our supposed superiority over others, when in truth our diversity is founded in each case on our living under conditions specific to ourselves.

No one is conceived or born under the influence of evil stars such as Shakespeare may have drawn Caliban, Richard III, or Iago. We may become evil by living under evil circumstances—by being abused as children, for instance, or by being denied basic needs in our formative years, or serving a battle-stressed life in the military. In the list above, no one is inherently evil without having lived a life of cruelty, need, or abuse. We know that suffering post-traumatic-stress disorder does not make a veteran evil, though he may commit acts perceived and judged as such. Yet when it comes to tyrants, we make them pay for their crimes rather than lead them through a bout of truth and reconciliation as we saw in South Africa at the end of apartheid.

Instead of doing violence to such persons, we would do better to help them in viewing the results of their actions as others see them. Which is far easier to say than to do. We do not readily take responsibility for our engagements because each of us believes that he or she knows what life is about, and lives it as it is meant to be lived. It is difficult to imagine that we make ourselves happen as we do because of a loop of engagement set in motion by our being who we are, where we are. Or that we are so accustomed to living such a loop that we do not see that we ourselves are the figure behind the curtain pulling the levers that control us.

But in fact we make ourselves happen every second of our lives according to lessons learned through earlier experience. We mindlessly cling to ways that are familiar, believing we have no alternative available to us. It’s back to the future in every case, our fate being a foregone conclusion over which we assume we have little control. 

Rather than condemn tyrannical personalities to death or solitary confinement, I think it would be better to have them confront their atrocities so that they may ultimately come to transcend them. Rage has never brought about a good end. I offer both the felling of the Twin Towers and the American invasion of Iraq in retaliation as classic examples. Suicide by jihadis precludes truth and reconciliation, so their earthly salvation is moot.

Rather than punish those who offend us, we do better to help them see that their loops of engagement will lead to a bad end. By taking responsibility for what they have done, they can distance themselves from the habit of violence they picked up when young and go beyond it in seeking a life of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Sorry to sermonize, but I see so much needless violence in the world, I wanted to say something because violence breeds only violence, and we never break out of the loop. Y’r friend, –Steve

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